Russell Hunting stories #1 1894: Mephistopheles in red tights haunts Fred Gaisberg

This week we are planning to run a five day series of blog entries about a maverick who was involved at the start of the very start of the record business when its pioneers were searching to find the best business model to capitalise on the new sound-recording and playback technology.

Patrick Feaster, a music historian, explained. “We have long thought of the phonograph as something that simply reproduced music but early uses of the phonograph were incredibly experimental. People were trying pretty much everything, trying to figure out what they could put on these recordings to make a buck, everything from hymns and prayers at one extreme to obscenity on the other end.”

Russell Hunting was a right man in the right place as the record business came into being. An intriguing mixture, he was part entrepreneur, part rogue, funny, unconventional, sometimes the artist and occasionally a business executive. Things appear to never have been dull when he was around. This is day #1 of 5 about the early years of Russell Hunting, a big extrovert so retrospectively elusive that we can only find this one very small photo of him.

Hunting was born in 1865 and would have been 12 years old when Edison invented the phonograph and 29 and working as a thespian by the time that he (perhaps inevitably) entered the orbit of Fred Gaisberg.

When Gaisberg threw in his lot with Emile Berliner’s new gramophone business, his primary role was to make recordings that Berliner could use to demonstrate the quality of his new invention. After he had completed the first batch in 1894 Hunting burst into his life, “The much advertised Burlesque show entitled Faust Up-to-Date visited the Albaugh Theatre next door to our lab which was at 1410 Pennslyvania Avenue, Washington. The stage manager was Russell Hunting. He also played the part of Mephistopheles, and, dressed in red tights was shot up from the bowels of the theatre into the midst of a bevy of dancers.

I knew him as the originator of the “Michael Casey” series of Phonograph records. They consisted of rapid-fire cross-talk between two Irish characters, with Hunting taking both parts. His fine voice had an infinite capacity for mimicry. In his spare time he made these cylinder records in his hotel room and they had become famous among exhibitors.

I argued with Berliner that by an investment of $25 ($2,200 in today’s money) for five titles, we would have a dazzling attraction in our campaign for capital. It was, for us, a huge investment, but we took the plunge…”

The Michael Casey records were comedy records. They were very popular and did brisk business with the patrons of the nickel in the slot phonograph listening machines. Hunting recorded the early ones before being replaced by a series of other actors who then played Michael Casey in much the same way that we’ve seen a number of different actors play James Bond. You can hear on of Hunting’s efforts “Casey at the Telephone” here

A wider catalogue of Hunting’s recordings are available on the Charm website, here
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Obituary for Roger Beardsley

Roger Beardsley

We have learnt of the sad passing of Roger Beardsley who was a great friend of the EMI Archives and of many of us who have worked there over the years. Roger was a passionate restorer of early recordings and also one of life’s fun people. Lunch with Roger always seemed to end around tea time and was never boring! Our thoughts go out to his family.

We have found the following information on Music Preserved website which Norman Lebrecht has added to in his Slipped Disc blog.

It is with the heaviest of hearts that we report the sudden death of Roger Beardsley on 7 April. His loss will be felt keenly wherever good music and old recordings are treasured, but our condolences go first to his family. Roger was the transfer engineer responsible for remsatering all of Music Preserved’s archive of historic recordings: a mammoth task he undertook with the love, enthusiasm and expertise that made him acknowledged worldwide as foremost in a highly specialised field. His care and expertise were second to none. Roger took a leading role in the work and growth of Music Preserved. He leaves a huge legacy of music, of living experiences that would otherwise have been lost to the ravages of time, and that may now be absorbed, studied and most of all enjoyed for as long as there are ears to listen. He also leaves a wide circle of friends who counted themselves lucky indeed to enjoy the company of a warm, witty and affable man who was never short of a good joke or a sharply observed apercu.

More from Roger’s CV:

Roger Beardsley began his professional music and recording career at BBC Radio Leeds, where he was a presenter/producer of a weekly music programme (1974-1983). He then became a freelance recording engineer, producing first LP, then CD releases for a variety of organisations including the BBC, following the basic premise that too many microphones cloud the sound. As a second-generation 78 collector, Roger felt that historical re-issues were a travesty of the originals, hence changed his focus from ‘live’ recording to audio restoration. He has produced 400+ CDs to date, covering every sphere of ‘serious’ musical endeavour recorded over the last 110 years – from Vess L. Ossman in 1895 to Kiri Te Kanawa in 2005. He has received various awards for his work, including ‘Classic Record Collector’ for Bartók Quartets (Pearl, 2003) and Kathleen Ferrier and Friends (Pearl GEM0229, 2005), and a ‘Diapason d’Or’ for Gerard Souzay (Pearl, 2002).

Roger is Director of Historic Masters Ltd, which produces limited editions (in the form of direct pressings from original metal masters) of important 78 rpm material from the EMI Archive. He is also a Trustee of Historic Singers Trust, working with the EMI Archive Trust to catalogue their holdings of historic material. So far he has identified 24,000 original metal masters (1900-early 1950s) and located over 1,000 important masters thought destroyed in Germany during World War II. He has produced ‘Fonotipia Ledgers 1904-1939’ (CD-ROM, Historic Masters, 3rd ed.), a database-format discography detailing over 10,000 recordings made by this highly important Italian company.

Roger was a member of the Academic Advisory Board of CHARM and is Technical Consultant (audio restoration) to the Music Department of Kings College London. He is also a member of the Music Preserved Council, an organisation dedicated to conserving, restoring and making available unique recordings of broadcast performances from the 1930’s onwards that would otherwise have been lost.